Christmas 1, B
I sat staring at a blank screen cogitating on this sermon. The family summoned me to the dinner table, then most politely asked about the subject of the sermon. It’s John’s Christmas story, I told them. Since no one changed the subject, or looked terribly pained, I went on.
I explained that Mark – our primary evangelist this church year, doesn’t have a Christmas story. His narrative begins with baptism and moves expeditiously through to Easter. The author of Luke gifted us with the Christmas story we know and treasure: Mary and the manger, donkeys and woolly sheep, shepherds, stars and choirs of angels. Legalistic Matthew eventually tells the story of Joseph and Mary and the babe, after expending more than 300 words to describe in painstaking detail who begat whom among Joseph’s forebears.
The kids were still chewing, so I went on, warming to my story. But John, I said, John’s Christmas story is something completely different.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. That…is John’s Christmas story.
Right, they said. Can we have dessert now?
Yes, well. I have to admit to a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Gospel of John, myself. I appreciate the rapid-fire communication style of Mark, the certainty of Matthew, the unstinting compassion of Luke, but the sheer high-minded, well, wordiness of John wears me down on occasion. All the same, over the years this has become my favorite Christmas story.
J.B. Phillips wrote a book called “Your God is Too Small”. I have not actually read this book. I have no idea if it is brilliant or complete hogwash, but the title alone is worth whatever effort he may have put into the rest of the book. “Your God is Too Small”
In our on-going effort to know God, to experience the sacred, to connect with the divine we unwittingly diminish our image of God, break down the sacred into digestible bits, squeeze the divine back into that tiny, cute, straw filled manger from whence it came. We want to squish God into a box of our own devising. And there God sits, our own private God-in-a-box; providing on-demand comfort or justification or ritual or guidance.
In the beginning there was only chaos. Then out of the void appeared Erebus, the unknowable place where death dwells, and Night. All else was empty, silent, endless, darkness. Then somehow Love was born bringing a start of order. From Love came Light and Day. Once there was Light and Day, Gaea, the earth appeared. This is the Greek creation myth.
From Judaism: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Today’s evangelist offers nothing less than the creative force of all the cosmos wrapt in flesh and living among us unfettered by restrictions of time or culture or creed or nation or barn or baby-ness.
I saw a cartoon the other day depicting one character – I think it was a mouse – bemoaning the state of the world and the optimism of his colleague, “How can you be optimistic about 2018? The world is so messed up. What do you think it will bring?” His busy associate answers, “I think it will bring flowers.” Skeptical, the first mouse snorts, “Flowers, how come you think that?”. “Because” answers the second mouse, “I’m planting flowers”
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations
God has planted the light within us, among us, the light for all people, the light to enlighten the darkness. We can bury what we know of the light back in a box, deep within, stored away with the Christmas decorations and the wrapping paper, or we can plant it in the world around us, blossoms of light and life and love bursting forth in the darkness
Advent 4, B/Christmas Eve
20 centuries ago in Jerusalem, far from home, far from help, far from hospitality, Mary birthed a baby boy. It wasn’t such a big deal at the time, at least not so as anybody important would know about it. The child’s parents oohed and ah-ed, of course, in a tired and stressed out sort of way. That’s a parent thing. Every parent sees the hope embodied by their offspring. Maybe all of us see the promise of a newborn. Joy and wonder lie intrinsic in new life.
Still, he hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary yet. Suckled for milk, maybe, soaked some swaddling clothes with spit up and pee. The child was newborn – still in what my husband affectionately calls the leaky sack of fluids stage – fluid in, fluid out. Normal baby stuff.
Now, there were the shepherds. That was unusual, of course. You don’t get shepherds traipsing around the countryside looking to pay homage to the illegitimate offspring of a teenage girl every day. But they were shepherds. Unclean. Stinky. No judge would even hear their testimony – too notoriously unreliable. Lowest possible rung of the social ladder. Their proclamation meant nothing.
Except we’re still proclaiming. Still celebrating. Still pausing just for a moment, just for an hour; pausing in the busyness, the cacophony of life to praise God. Still encountering the light in the darkness. Still gathering to sing and pray and break bread together in His Name.
His name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His name is Emmanuel—the God who is with us—who is made out of the same stuff we are and who is made out of the same stuff God is and who will not let either of us go. (BBT)
British poet U.A. Fanthorpe (b. 1929) was the first woman nominated as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. She wrote this about the moment of that first cry which marked the babe’s ignominious arrival.
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
In the course of ordinary events, among ordinary people, God became human. “Eternity invaded time. The sacred embraced the profane. Before yielded to After.” (Daniel Clenendin, Journey with Jesus.)
Fr. Richard Rohr describes “the true self” as “where you and God are one”. Christmas, the birth of God into humanity, Emmanuel, represents God’s gift of God, what one author describes as a radically reciprocal reality. (Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher) A loving presence within. A light in the darkness.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined…
Father Rohr goes on to explain that the True self “does not choose to love as much as it is love itself already (see Colossians 3:3-4). The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion. Loving from this core of your being is experienced as a river within you that flows of its own accord (see John 7:38-39). From this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves everything. We were made in love, for love, and unto love.”
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, writes more recognizably for the less mystic, less saintly among us, of the need to take Christmas into tomorrow and the next day and next month and all the days and months and moments of our ordinary lives: “here we are daily, not necessarily attractive and saintly people, along with other not very attractive and saintly people, managing the plain prose of our everyday service, deciding daily to recognize the prose of ourselves and each other as material for something unimaginably greater — the Kingdom of God, the glory of the saints, reconciliation and wonder” (Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, 2005).
20 centuries ago in Jerusalem, far from home, far from help, far from hospitality, Mary hummed and sang and soothed her baby boy, born into squalor, born into love. One poet describes the song that can be heard in that young mother’s lullaby.
Listen for God singing the world into being.
Look for the light shining in the music.
Notice this cosmic song, this act of Creation,
rising in you, unfolding, radiating,
shining in the darkness. (Steve Garnaas Holmes)
Advent 3, B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Mystic and monk Thomas Merton wrote, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” “The beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ”
I read a story once about an old country pastor. The church had a children’s sermon, and the pastor was trying to engage the children in his talk – get them involved. “Ok kids, what animal has a bushy tail and climbs through the trees?” Silence. Nobody said anything. Small feet fidgeted and no-one would meet his eye. Pastor tries again, “a small animal. It gathers nuts and hides them for winter?” “Makes a kind of chirping noise when it is disturbed?”….again, silence. The pastor felt his collar somehow getting tighter as he waited. He felt his cheeks begin to get a little red in the prolonged silence. “Help me out kids. Somebody must know what animal I’m talking about.” Another awkward silence. A little shorter this time before Jackie takes pity on the floundering pastor and slowly raises his hand. Relieved, the pastor pounces on the opportunity. “Yes. yes. Jackie.” Jackie swallows hard. “Well Pastor, we all know it sounds like a squirrel; but since this is church, we all know it’ll turn out to be Jesus.” (story from Delmer Chilton)
This is the church. Everything we do, everything we say, everything that springs from the life of this church, from the lives of its congregants, should point to Jesus, reflect Jesus, BE Jesus for the world.
“The beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ”. John the Baptist was the beginning of the end. He was not the messiah, not the Christ. John clearly and repeatedly delineated what he was not. Not the messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. Jesus came as God incarnate. I think John the Baptist was Advent incarnate. He was the waiting, the voice in the wilderness, the call to prepare. He knew nothing of the form or shape or nature of the Messiah he was bound to foretell. He knew no name for the one he proclaimed. Which means, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, that “until that one came, John’s life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the light, a waiting without knowing for the one thing that would change everything. He could not name it, but he knew it was coming, and the knowledge alone was enough to make the wait worthwhile.” John was the messenger and it made him burn like a bonfire in the sharp icy inky blackness of a long December night.
We lit the rose candle today. The candle is not just a lovely accent piece, nor a test of acolyte knowledge base about what candles to light which weeks. We light the rose candle this third week in Advent to mark Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete in domino semper”, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” – The traditional opening words of the Latin mass for the third week of Advent.
John is not the only one fired up this week: Listen to Isaiah: I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God. Did you hear Mary singing? My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. And we must not forget the refrain of our faithful correspondent Paul: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.”
Fine and good for them perhaps – they were God’s chosen ones. They did not live in a world with terrorism and the IRS; they had no road rage or insurance premiums, no opioid crisis, no inkling of the damage a semi-automatic paired with fear or anger or hatred can do over the course of mere seconds. They did not yet possess the technology to destroy their own air and water and earth. They were not, of course, strangers to the same racism, hunger, inequality, or oppression of the poor, the sick, the otherwise vulnerable that afflicts our world. But they had their own issues as well.
Isaiah spoke for a people newly returned to their homeland from exile and virtual slavery in Babylon. They returned to a land which lay in ruin, destroyed by war and by neglect.
Mary was an unwed mother in a world far less forgiving of that circumstance than our own. She held audience with angels but had no guarantee those same angels would protect or feed or house her or the baby they foretold.
Paul had deserted his up-bringing for his faith. He lived in chronic pain and under constant threat of imprisonment and death.
Still they sang – not in gratitude for the things God did, the stuff God offered, the worldly blessings before them. By any worldly standard, their lives were a mess. A frightful, tangled, sticky ooey, gooey, jumbled-up mess.
Still they sang – of the joy that welled up from within, of souls filled with the spirit of God, “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” They sang not in reaction to God’s works, but as an expression of God’s joyful, loving, mysterious, glorious presence. Their lives became expressions of God’s love for God’s world – selfless, giving, loving – doing the very work of God.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
The Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes offers this:
The brook is not the light
but it reflects the coming dawn.
The geese are not the winter,
but it falls from their wings.
The wave is not the sea;
the note is not the song;
I am not the light
but I am made of nothing else.
If not to the light within,
bear witness to the dawn.
To the song.
The candle isn’t the sun,
but sings its song.
I don’t have to be(lieve) this,
just sing the song.
May it be so for us. May we reflect the light, sing the song of Christ within us. Amen.
Advent 1, B
I have a toilet in my living room. White porcelain, normal, toilet looking toilet. The sort of thing that would look right at home in a bathroom. Mine, however is right in the middle of the living room. Slightly off center in front of the fireplace. I have a toilet in my living room because I got tired of having a toilet in my foyer, and at least the living room is on the same floor as the bathroom that it will eventually reside in. Except that other things happen. Life things. Things that need to happen before the toilet can go live in its forever home. Life things. Right now things. Must happen today things. So there it sits. In my living room. For the last, I don’t know 2 or 4 or maybe 6 months now. Thing is, at this point, I have a highly efficient living room toilet filter. Unless I accidentally throw the dog’s toy into it, I do not even see the porcelain sculpture in the middle of my living room. Until somebody comes over. Then I become exquisitely, painfully aware of the toilet in my living room and really wish I’d done something about it. Beware, keep alert.
The people who first heard the Gospel of Mark had a problem. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted to be the oldest of the Gospels, probably written about 66 AD (CE), at the height of Roman persecution of Christians in the days of Nero. Aside from the issue of avoiding the unhealthy attention of Nero, these early Christians had another, more theological problem. For many, if not for most, Jesus seemed to be running a little late. They had waited these 30+ years since Jesus’s death with great faith and not inconsiderable patience for the second coming. They held an imminent eschatology (eschatology is just a fancy word for the final destiny of humankind or of the soul). They believed that Jesus was going to come and the world was going to end imminently. Except that it hadn’t. Yet.
In response to the prolonged delay many began to think perhaps there had been a misunderstanding, and that actually Jesus’s return wasn’t imminent, but rather would mark the culmination of all world events – a future eschatology.
The Gospel of Mark be-bops between an imminent and a future eschatology on practically on a verse by verse basis. Some verses seem to suggest an apocalypse the day after tomorrow would not be an unreasonable expectation; other verses shift the end times comfortably down the road of time. Scholars suggest the author was working from two different sources as he penned his work. Unable to make up his mind between the two options, he wove them together into a single narrative. Scholar David Lose suggests instead that Mark quite deliberately blurs the distinction. He mindfully calls into question the false dichotomy between an imminent and future eschatology, suggesting “all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree.” He posits that “Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in similar places of vulnerability, openness, and need.”
“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
This reading is sometimes called Mark’s mini-apocalypse. We think of an apocalypse as an ending, yet here we stand on the first day for the new church year, awaiting the birth of the Christ child – and facing the apocalypse. We shy away from these dire warnings, these frightening images. They are uncomfortable and frightening and disrupt the Christmas mood. Our peril sensors flare and our filters lock firmly into place and we do not see – just as I don’t see the toilet in my living room.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Advent is the time to remember that we are the stuff of dirt and ash, yet also the stuff of stars molded by God into something Holy and His. The time to drop our filters and see in the world about us the dire and horrific, the grungy and unfair, the sad and vulnerable all wrapped around the sacred potential that is God’s world.
“The Church gives these apocalyptic warnings as a gift, to shake away complacency, to shock into second sight, to awake to the immediacy of salvation wrapped in breathtaking clouds of doom,” writes one priest.
“The soul’s journey begins in apocalypse. Cataclysm dims the safe filters of ordinary sight to heighten the view of Reality. Shock, fear, grief, courage, and then, perhaps, curiosity, opens the door to the mystical life. Once you pass through the threshold of doom, ultimately, you’ll awake to the beauty of holiness.” Suzanne Guthrie
Keep awake therefore. Watch. And See.
Proper 28, A
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Maybe this is just a thing in my family. I remember the scene in my family of origin. I’ve changed roles and relived it in my current nuclear family. I think it must be pretty universal, but you can tell me. Child is displeased by treatment of said child. A bedtime enforced, perhaps, or a playdate denied, maybe a sibling afforded some measure of consideration denied to the child in question. Passionate diatribe ensues: you always give everything to her, you never want to do anything for me; you never let me do anything; you say you love me, but you don’t, you hate me!!! Is this sounding familiar to anyone? The parental response varies, of course, but a Crossley favorite seems to be the look, the Mumma look. And then “Really? Is that what you see?”
The landowner echoes this scene with the 3rd servant in today’s lesson. “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid”. “You knew, did you?” The first and second servants seemed to suffer no such fear.
“Your image of God creates you,” wrote Fr. Richard Rohr, “Your image of God creates you—or defeats you. There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe.”
So long as Gods’ image stands as one of disciplinarian in chief, capricious, unpredictable, withdrawing and awarding love and acceptance on a whim – we create our selves, our lives around preserving ourselves, playing it safe. Perhaps worse, we protect God. Like the family of an angry abuser protects the abuser against anything that might break a delicate temporary peace, we protect God against all manner of upset.
Murdoch University professor William Loader suggests “The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God.” (William Loader)
The traditional reading of this parable places God in the role of absentee slaveowner: spiteful, malevolent and mercurial. Consider for a moment the possibility that Jesus did not mean to imply that Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, Ground of our Being is in reality a genuine scuzzball. “Really,” says God? “After the Gospels, the saints, the mystics, the martyrs, is that what you see?” Perhaps Jesus meant instead to place emphasis on what God means to have happen with the abundance God offers.
The English word talent meaning natural aptitude or skill, derives from this biblical story. Talent within the context of the story, however, refers to money. Lots of money. One talent represented gold the value of approximately 15 years labor. Since 1st century Palestine saw few 40 y/o and precious few 50 y/o the servant with 2 talents held within his control more money than most would see in their entire lifespans. The servant with 5 talents held unimaginable abundance.
Composer Gian Carlo Menotti said, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.” That is where we find the outer darkness, the gnashing of teeth, the weeping.
In 1876, 10 y/o Annie’s abusive father deserted her after her mother died. Wild and ungovernable, as well as nearly blind from a childhood eye infection Annie went to an almshouse where she learned lessons in self-sufficiency but little else. She had little to hope for.
One day a hunchbacked, orphaned, devout young woman named Maggie came. Maggie “moved in the blackness of the almshouse like sunlight.” (Kim Nielson, Beyond the Miracle worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Boston: Beacon Press, c. 2009, 22)
Maggie grew flowers in her room. She took an interest in Annie, protecting her and other vulnerable girls as best she could. “You can’t help being poor” Maggie told Annie, “but you can help poverty from eating the heart out of you.” She explained to Annie that her misery was not her responsibility, but the state of her spirit most certainly was. Annie attended Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. After a rough start, she graduated in 1886 as valedictorian of her class. After graduation, the director of Perkins School recommended Annie for her first job.
“She was sent to Tuscumbia, Alabama to be teacher and governess to a seven-year-old blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller. This newly certified teacher, Anne Sullivan, knew about blindness, anger, and fear through the hardships of her life. But she also knew about grace and redemption and the responsibility to live faithfully because of the love of Maggie Hogan who made the grim reality of an almshouse life bearable and even hopeful for children.” (Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott; story from Kim Nielson, Beyond the Miracle worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Boston: Beacon Press, c. 2009)
You know the remarkable story of Helen Keller. You probably know the story of her devoted friend and teacher, Annie Sullivan. Did you know about Maggie Hogan? It seems as if she really didn’t have much to invest. Her faithful, selfless, devotion invested in nurturing and protecting a wild, blind, hopeless child cascaded into benefit beyond any she might have imagined.
Again Professor Loader, “”God’s mercy never ends” is a way of saying grace has capital, love is rich. We need to…stop putting God under the mattress. As we begin to trust allowing God to move through us, our lives change as individuals and our communities have a better chance of change.
Author Henry R. Rust visited a Christian congregation in a village in Kenya. At the offertory people handed a basket along the rows of seats. People filled the basket with coins and small bills as they were able. When the basket made its way to a young woman with two small children, she looked at it for a while. Finally she placed it on the dirt floor in front of her. Barefoot, she picked up her children. Holding one child on each hip, she stepped into the offering basket. She stood, head bowed, praying for several minutes, then stepped out of the basket and passed it on.
When the basket comes to us, do we play it safe and offer back only what was given, our offering covered still in the anxiety and fear we kept it buried safely within? Or do we step boldly into the middle of the Holy mystery, offering our own transformed Spirit-charged lives to the Creator? (with thanks to Rev. Delmer Chilton, Living Lutheran, for the story and basket concept)
Proper 27, A
(Seated in front of the altar, facing the congregation)…. I’m waiting…You’re waiting…
You can see where they might fall asleep. The bridesmaids, I mean. No smart phones. Just lamp trimming to keep them going really.
You’re waiting, I would imagine, for me to say “May what I say and what you hear be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” You’re waiting for me to get up and make some sense out of this mystifying parable. Failing that I could at least get up and relate some amusing anecdote my children have provided for our mutual entertainment. Anything to end the waiting.
I’m waiting for… I’m not sure. Maybe for the parable to make actually make some sense. I identify with one correspondent who wrote in an e-mail this week:
“I learned early on that I am ‘wired’ in such a way that to do things well in advance of any deadline is dangerous territory for me. In ministry, I discovered that any sermon I wrote early in the week usually ended up flat on the sanctuary floor, where no member dared to touch it. So, I stopped doing that – writing sermons. . . I do the exegesis and study,…, I let the words/thoughts/phrases chase each other around in my head, until they all seem to fall into place. Sometimes they wait until Saturday night, sometimes they join me in the shower on Sunday morning, and occasionally they delay their arrival until just before the service starts.” (Thom Shuman, Midrash, personal correspondence)
Sometimes it takes a while for the Good News to become clear. So I wait. Sometimes I wait better than other times.
Winter came early this year. We certainly didn’t have to wait for that. It seems, somehow, that Advent came early as well. Advent is the season of waiting, after all – not our current ordinary time. Still, last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent for some churches who participate in a growing movement to transform Advent from a 4-week to a 7-week season. Advent has only been a 4-week season since the 19th century or so. The Orthodox Church has celebrated a 7-week Advent for centuries. Changing would not require adjusting the lectionary at all. These last weeks before Christ the King Sunday are already about waiting, preparing. We begin and end the the church year waiting, preparing, yearning for Jesus to come again even as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation, the first coming, the baby in the manger. A 7-week Advent might serve to eliminate that sense of Advent as merely a countdown, a marker of the crazy season that leads up to Christmas – so loud and shiny and brassy and in-your-face in the world out there. Maybe if Advent were longer we would have to learn to wait.
As a culture, we show little aptitude for waiting. We fill the waiting. With phones. With computers. With plans. With shopping and glitter. We fill it rather than experience it. The maidens didn’t experience it either. With nothing to fill the waiting, they fell asleep; the wise and the foolish alike.
Christianity has been described as a “waiting religion”. When Paul wrote today’s letter to the Thessalonians, the people had been waiting for Christ’s return for many years. Those with first hand accounts of Jesus were dying off – people began to fear they waited in vain. Paul sought to reassure them. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
2 generations after Paul comforted the Thessalonians the author of Matthew penned this parable. He’s the only Gospel author that included it. The Evangelist needed to emphasize not only the sure benefit of waiting and its necessary unpredictability, but that waiting engendered an urgency, an immediacy of preparation. He needed to keep the people motivated.
2 millennia after the Evangelist struggled, it’s possible that we have lost the urgency. Certain groups place high emphasis on the apocalypse, but for the most part it holds little sway in our day to day lives. Oscar Wilde wrote, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin; it’s a nice arrangement.” Merely the fact that we show up here week after week suggests we may have taken on a somewhat less utilitarian existence than Mr. Wilde. Still, we would do well to take heed of Amos’s reminder of the dangers of complacency in our faith. We happily remember the truth that “God loves you just the way you are,” and just as happily ignore the truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
One professor tells a story of a student who committed to a regular discipline of prayerful scripture reading. His wife had gone visiting out of town. He and their 2-year-old English beagle Sadie had their home to themselves. “Every night around 10:00 he would sit on the love seat and spend half an hour on [his] devotional reading. Soon [Sadie] got the notion that this was a good opportunity to pursue her own spiritual growth, so she began hopping up and sitting next to him on the couch and putting her head in his lap. One night he got caught up in watching the news and didn’t go to the love seat at the prescribed time. Sadie came over and began to pull at his pant legs. One night he was exhausted and went to bed at 9:45. Just as he was drifting off to sleep he heard a whimpering and felt the blanket being pulled off the bed. Looking over the side of the bed, there was Sadie, his bedspread in her teeth, there to call him to prayer. He decided that some dogs were bird dogs and some dogs were sheep dogs, but that Sadie was a prayer dog. This parable of the Ten Virgins is a Sadie the Prayer Dog parable. It reminds us of the urgency in what seems to be an endless future.” (Alyce McKenzie, Bridesmaids, The Time is Now, Patheos, 2011)
As we live out our faith in an imperfect, troubled world, this parable can motivate us to take action in response to environmental abuse, [poverty, hatred] and injustice while effective action is still possible. (Paraphrased from Alyce McKenzie, Bridesmaids, The Time is Now, Patheos, 2011)
Poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:
Bridesmaids await the groom.
Some run out of oil.
The others decline to share.
Right when the groom comes
the unprepared ones run off to buy oil.
The others enter the hall without them.
When they return, the groom rejects them.
Bridesmaids who aren’t prepared,
others who refuse to share,
those who run away right when they’re needed,
those who are happy to desert them,
and a groom who refuses to admit his friends:
none of these people are behaving well. None.
How is this like the realm of God?
A voice in your heart recoils, says,
“This could all be different!”
There. That is like the realm of God.
That is what we are called to do in the waiting. Recoil from injustice, from selfishness, from exclusion. Pray, love, act, feed, vote, teach, comfort, clothe, transform, LIVE like Christ will be here tonight. Because He will. Tonight and tomorrow and a week from next Thursday. The Kingdom breaks in to our every day, glimmers of hope, trickles of justice until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
All Saint’s Sunday, A
When my youngest was little…littler…we took an airplane down to Texas to see my brother. At the time Linnaea was old enough that we needed to buy her her own seat on the plane, and young enough that she spent very little time in it. I’m sure the pilot had everything under control for the entire flight. That seemed less obvious from the perspective of the passengers. Turbulence they call it. Perfectly normal. Part of air travel. Still, when that overgrown tin can hurtling around the heavens at unbelievable speeds starts jumping and dropping and lurching at unpredictable intervals, everybody gets a little..nervous. A mite touchy. Necks and shoulders stiffen and you keep hearing sudden intakes of breath. Not my husband’s. He sleeps through it. And not Linnaea’s.
Either my strong, unconcerned Mumma act worked, or she thought it was all part of the fun, but she played and sang and read and colored and observed. One gentleman a couple rows up had it bad. His hands whitened gripping the arm rests as if they would somehow save him if we went into free fall. His head kept darting around like he expected the angel of death to sneak up on him from behind and tap him on the shoulder. On one of those furtive glances over his shoulder, Linnaea caught his glance from the vantage point of my lap. She held his gaze and sang, loud and clear enough for the entire cabin to hear: “We’re gonna die. We’re gonna die.” We didn’t die, but the tension did – everyone close enough to hear burst into laughter.
As I was preparing to write this sermon, babbling (as I am wont to do) about tidbits I find interesting or useful in my research, Gavia apparently caught a theme to my musings and piped up, “Is this going to be a sermon about death, Mumma?” Yes. Well, no. Well. We’ll see.
In the great Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck tells of the Widow Douglas and her campaign to civilize him. “…after supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”
We don’t “take no stock in dead people”. We don’t take no stock in death. Culturally, emotionally, those are no fly zones. Except sometimes. Except when your plane is threatening to fall out of the sky. Except when somebody close dies or hovers near death. Except on All Saint’s Sunday when we thoughtfully, mindfully remember the faithful dead. Then the dead and the past and and the living and the now get all jumbled up and mixed together, vying for primacy of the moment.
In his novel “Requiem for a Nun” William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Chapel Hill New Testament professor, Bernard Boyd taught, “Christianity and Judaism acknowledge the is-ness of the was.”
Recognized saints are, by definition, dead people. At some point in its early history, the church began to recognize and celebrate those who had lived for the faith, most often had died for it as well. The days of the Christian calendar filled with the names of the recognized saints – over the centuries too many to count, too many to be sure they all were recognized. All Saints Day sought to rectify that, remedy any omissions, celebrate the communion of all the saints, past, present and future, recognized and anonymous.
It’s an opportunity to celebrate the is-ness of what was. We celebrate what made the saints, saints: the is of the kingdom not when they died, not as they waited for heaven, not when they had time or resources, but the is of the kingdom in their right now real time lives. They led, for the most part, crazy mixed up difficult lives. Blessed lives. Blessed by God.
When we remember the saints, when we commend those we have loved to God’s care, we (as one commentator says) “proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Easter promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring than the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us.” (David Lose, In the Meantime, 2017)
Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic translation of our gospel in The Message Bible is helpful –
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be (fully) embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are-no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world-your mind and heart-put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that-count yourself blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit you. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens-give a cheer, even!-for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
So yes, Linnaea, we’re going to die, like all people do – sinners and saints alike. But, Gavia, this is a sermon about life, about Kingdom, about blessing.
One writer expresses it thus, “My blessing is this. I know a God who gives hope to the hopeless. I know a God who loves the unlovable. I know a God who comforts the sorrowful. And I know a God who has planted this same power within me. Within all of us. And for this blessing, may our response always be, “Use me.” (Scott Dannemiller)
Proper 24, A
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
I live with an oompaloompa. I live with an oompaloompa and I have oompaloompas visiting my home and all of that is just fine except that I don’t actually know what an oompaloompa is except that it makes faces and sings and apparently sports purple hair (although I’ve yet to see the hair). I don’t really understand the world of oompaloompaness because I haven’t ever seen the movie or seen the play or read the book or checked out the liner notes – it’s not part of the culture that I’ve absorbed thus far in my world context.
This season we are wending our way through the Dramatic work known as the gospel of Matthew. Center stage we find Herodians and Pharisees colluding against Jesus. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience to whom it would be frightfully obvious from the outset that this peculiar pairing portended poorly. As for me – I know little more of Herodians than Oompaloompas. We generally see pharisees on the bad guy end of the spectrum. Certainly Herod does not fare well in the Christian narrative. Quite the duo for pernicious plotting, yes? Except they were bitter enemies whom nothing could possibly unite. Nothing…except a threat that overshadowed even their enmity. A threat like Jesus.
Brief history lesson:
The Herodians: In Jesus’s time Rome ruled Israel. Rome was not known for its kind, benevolent manner of ruling. It turns out that keeping an entire population subjugated under absolute tyranny is an expensive and complex business. To that end, the Romans enlisted certain members of the subjugated peoples and made it worth those people’s while to help the Romans – report misdeeds and fomenting rebellions, crush rabble rousers before any real rousing of rabble resulted, arrange burdensome taxes all for the small price of keeping some power for themselves – a power limited primarily by their own creativity and the absolute requirement of loyalty to Rome. In Jesus’s day, the Herodians filled that niche. In addition to needing someone to carry out much of the dirty day to day ruling, the Romans needed a way to pay for this expensive venture which brings us to history lesson two, the head tax.
Nobody likes taxes, and the Jews under Roman rule payed plenty of them. This story refers to the most hated of them, the one that eventually led in large part to the Zealot revolt, which in turn led to the destruction of the Temple. This tax was levied on all Roman subjects (but NOT Roman citizens) without any regard to ability to pay. Not only did Rome (with the help of the Herodians) require the subjects of cruel repression to pay the expense of their own subjugation, but the tax had to be paid in Roman coin. No orthodox Jew should even have such coin. Roman coin held the image of the Emperor.
Our coins have faces on them – it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Remember this – the Romans considered Caesar divine and the coin was a graven image. For a dutiful jew owning the currency shattered the 2nd commandment (no graven images) and put commandment #1 (no gods before me) in some danger as well. Which begs the question why the Pharisees were able to produce the coin Jesus asked for at all…
The pharisees get a bad rap in Matthew – (the subject for multiple different sermons, but not our concern today) The fact remains, they were the custodians of the Jewish law, typically fastidious in their mission to keep Israel keeping Yahweh happy. Keepers of the temple, advocates for Jewish identity – the natural enemies of the Roman collaborating Herodians. Except today.
Center stage. Herodians/Pharisees. Jesus/Followers. Romans. The question. The perfect, now-we-got-him-and-he-won’t-wiggle-out-of-this-one-with-his-clever-God-talk question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?
A “yes” announces to an abused and oppressed people being forced to fund the cost of their own subjugation with a currency that undermines their faith that their hero considers the situation right and normal and lawful – God’s will. A yes answer should, if all goes well for the Pharisees, get Jesus lynched. The alternative “no” answer represents a clear, public open call to an act rebellion against the rule of the Romans, a certain path to expedited execution.
Effectively, Jesus says the coin bears the image and likeness of Caesar. Give it back to the only one it can belong to. Give it back to Caesar. Brilliant. No lynching. No execution. Whose image? Whose likeness?
Jesus’s answer gets him out of a sticky wicket, but raises the question – what belongs to God. Remember back to the first chapter of Genesis (1:26a, 27a) “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.
Give back to God that which is God’s…
Each person is created singularly, uniquely, reflecting something of God in their person. [But] when minting coins a ruler makes all the images exactly the same; they are flat representations of himself. When Jesus asks for the coin and poses the question, “Whose image and inscription is this?” they respond with Caesar’s name and image. … The coin belongs to Caesar, but the person, the human being, belongs solely to God (Megan McKenna).
Give yourself to God whose image you bear. It’s poetic. What does it mean? It is compelling but it is…impractical.
I read a story of a congregation asked by the preacher to take out a credit card, and draw a small cross on it. One author writes about the experience, “I did that, and for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with my own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, I had to think for myself about how my faith impacted my decisions about spending. And it wasn’t a burden. In fact, it was rather empowering to be reminded of my identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root me in my faith and invite me to actively reflect on how my faith shaped my daily life and particularly my economic life”. (David Lose, In the Meantime)
The tax, it turns out, isn’t the point. Money is not the point at all, but rather shaping our lives, our prayers, our giving, our speech, our thinking, our consumption, our assumptions all around our identity as the image bearers of God. Soon we gather together to break the bread of heaven together, to sip of the cup of life. At the Eucharist St. Augustine invited people to “receive who you are” then to “go become what you have received.”
I have chosen to be at peace with the oompaloompas in my life. Day by day, year by year, choice by choice may I to choose to serve the God of the rising and the setting sun, the God of light who shines in the darkness, the God of the whole earth, the God who knows my name, the God whose image I bear, the God whose praises I sing. Amen.
Proper 23, A
I had a dream when I was little. I had it over and over and over – so many times that I still remember it even though I haven’t had it in years. I couldn’t have been much more than 3 or 4 when I started having it, because it was at a time when it was still a bit of a challenge to climb into my bed by myself. My surroundings in the dream always seemed warm, humid, sweaty – the atmosphere somehow mists of swirling hues of orange and yellow and red. The dream always started with the sound of foot steps, soft and slow at first. Thump. thump. I would walk away from them, but they would get faster and louder the faster I walked away. Thumpthump. thumpthump. I would begin to run. Thumpthumpthumpthump. It was the monster chasing me – and I was trying to get to my bed because somehow the monster was chasing me because I wasn’t in my bed yet and I was supposed to be in my bed, but I ran and I ran and I couldn’t find my bed. Thumpthump… Finally I found my bed but I jumped and struggled and I couldn’t…quite…crawl…in the bed because somehow it was just too high. I didn’t have my pajamas on yet and I was supposed to have my pajamas on but if I was just in bed maybe it would be ok but I couldn’t jump. high. enough. Thumpthumpthumpthump. Just as the menacing swirls of hairy orange monster arms reached out for my naked pajama less ankles not quite under the covers I woke up. Sweaty. Heart pounding. Years later I realized that the sound of my heart beat exactly mimicked the sound of those monster’s steps.
The underdressed guest was having one of those days. One of those dreams…
We read from Matthew today, but Luke tells the same parable. One preacher has this to say on the subject of Luke and Matthew:
If Matthew and Luke had churches in my town, I would definitely go to Luke’s church. Every time I visit Matthew’s church, I sit near the door. Things are so clear-cut for him. In his world, you are either a sheep or a goat, wheat or tare, a wise maiden or a foolish one. If you pretend to be one when you are in fact the other, then woe to you, you hypocrite—you wolf in sheep’s clothing, you splinter picker with loggy eyes. Three guesses where you are headed when the kingdom comes!
[In my part of the country,] Matthew is what we call a fire and brimstone preacher. He gets really excited about hell, which he conceives as a burning trash dump where a lot of sorry hypocrites are going to grind their teeth for all eternity. Luke mentions the dump once, so maybe there’s something to it, but Matthew can’t seem to get enough of it. Over and over, he puts hell in Jesus’ mouth, filling the fiery furnace with sinners of every kind: evildoers, unfaithful stewards, [and] wicked servants…(Barbara Brown Taylor)
The Gospel of Luke relays today’s parable; so does the “Gospel of Thomas”. Luke and Thomas both manage to tell the story with no troops, no destruction, no burning, no binding, no weeping, no gnashing. The poor dumb schmuck caught without the wedding garment didn’t wander into Luke or Thomas at all. He was tucked into bed at home in his nice clean jammies, safe from the hairy orange monsters born of his own disconnect from relationship when Luke told his story.
And this is why we have the lectionary: the prescribed formula by which we wend our way through the scriptures in an orderly fashion week by week, year by year. We have the lectionary because if we did not I would soften those sharp Matthean edges; default back to the modulated tones of Luke and his message of inclusiveness and service allowing our hapless guest get to bed early for a dreamless, sweet rest. Then we would miss what he has to tell us in his waking fear.
I’ll be honest, I have no trouble identifying with the initial invitees to this soiree. Some people live to party. Some decidedly do not. My world is rather more in line with A.A. Milne’s Eeyore in this regard, as he says, “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” “Can’t all WHAT?” asks the social Poohbear, rubbing his nose. “Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush…I’m not complaining, but There It Is.”
Unlike Eeyore, it’s not the gaiety, the song and dance I mind. It’s the sense of being ill-prepared and unqualified for the role, unsure what the role actually should be – perpetually convinced I will wear/say/do the wrong things the wrong way. If I go to the party, if I cannot find an excuse which conveniently pulls me away, I function at the periphery of the gathering, people watching, safely at the edges where any social gaffes remain unlikely to garner general attention.
That is what happens to our under-dressed party goer. He goes the to the party, but he does not join the party. He does not honor the king, honor his son, dress for the occasion. He is living two lives – in attendance but not participating, present but not engaged.
At the combined team vestry retreat last week, Robyn and Becky presented a proposal to support “Move To Amend”. Becky talked about it briefly in church last week. Ask them for details if you are interested. The upshot is that it is a grass roots movement designed to upend the current legal situation which defines corporations as people, entitled to the same rights as any individual; and defines money as speech, therefore protecting unlimited flow of money in support of any cause or candidate. At the retreat, the very reasonable question was asked, whatever you might think of the movement, isn’t this bringing politics into church? Harold Lasswell, an American political scientist wrote the most commonly accepted definition of politics: “Politics is who gets what, when, how.”
By that definition, while we need not and arguably should not be partisan, we cannot, as a church, as the body of Christ, help but participate in politics. Worship restores, rejuvenates, but we cannot just come to the feast without donning the new clothes of a transformed life – a life transformed in Christ, in the things that concerned Christ. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the prisoners, pity the afflicted, care for the sick. Who gets what, when, how.
Worthy or not, prepared or not, busy or not, we are all of us invited to the feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The table is spread before us. Not to attend is to risk alienation from our creator, from the ground of our being. “God is not looking for warm bodies but for wedding guests who will rise to the occasion of honoring the son. We can do that in shorts and sneakers, I think, as well as in suits and high heels, because our wedding robes are not made of denim or silk. They are made of the whole fabric of our lives, using patterns God has given us — patterns of justice, forgiveness, loving-kindness, peace.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… May the God of peace be with you. Amen.
Proper 22, A
Martin Luther once claimed that sometimes you have to squeeze a Biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those biblical passages.
Honestly, I started this week already wrung out – wrung out from headlines of the incomprehensible random deadly violence in Las Vegas, wrung out from evolving news of death and violence on a huge scale in Myanmar, wrung out from continuing escalation of preparations to perpetrate mass destruction by nuclear weapons.
The Gospel, long my ally in a search for hope and peace and love and justice, this week greeted me with beatings and stonings and killings, followed by plans for divine retribution, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” paving the way for notions of an exclusionary, aloof, angry, vengeful God. I cannot in good faith preach this version of God. This is not a God I know.
So, we squeeze for the Gospel, for the Good news.
First, some context. Jesus is having a tough week. He’s no longer preaching and teaching and healing from boats and mountainsides. He’s in Jerusalem. He’s already tipped over the money changers’ tables at the temple, He’s challenged the religious authorities on their own turf. He’s angered powerful people with a truth they had no wish to hear. His end approaches and he is running out of time for subtleties.
Jesus tells His harshest critics and most adamant enemies, this wild, violent, improbable story – one which his audience of chief priests and pharisees would recognize immediately as hearkening back to Isaiah’s love song. He manages to have the religious authorities pronounce their own sentence by their own sense of justice. The brutal words of retribution, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death”, come from the mouths of the chief priests and pharisees – not from the mouth of Jesus. Jesus replies, pointedly not with “yeah verily and forsooth”, not with confirmation of that death sentence or inevitable propagation of violence, but rather with scripture from the Psalms,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Jesus, stripped of all power, all influence, stripped even of his life, becomes the cornerstone, the steadfast base for the creation of new spiritual life.
The pharisees and the chief priests the tenants of the beloved’s vineyard have lost sight of the expectations of the Lord: justice not bloodshed, righteousness not cries. The loss of the kingdom follows their own break of relationship with the Lord of Hosts, not vengeful retribution of a cranky God.
“The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls,” says Jesus
“How often it is,” says the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie,
“How often it is”
while straining to see an answer
upon the distant horizon
I stub my toe
against the solution
at my feet.” (Suzanne Guthrie, Edge of the Enclosure)
It would be easy to distance ourselves from this story. The Pharisees and chief priests represent the villain in virtually every Gospel story, particularly in Gospel of Matthew. Matthew preached to a vulnerable Jewish religious minority, threatened by the establishment as represented by those groups. Indeed, this text has been preached for centuries in its strict allegorical sense: the landowner as God, the vineyard as Israel, the wicked tenants as the Jews and the Cornerstone as Jesus. It thus provided centuries of scriptural justification for antisemitism.
Even stripped of the misuse of this text encouraging antisemitism, banishing it safely to the confines of ancient history relieves us of the burden of its violence and retribution, as well as responsibility for that vineyard. It also robs us of the drips of good news leaking from this story.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.” We are the tenants now. We hold responsibility for protecting God’s oceans and skies, for loving God’s children – especially the unlovable ones, for feeding the hungry, for protecting the powerless, for speaking truth to the powerful, for re-envisioning justice in light of compassion rather than retribution, for squeezing out the Good News.
“And for me, this week,” writes one pastor, “that good news means in part that violence does not and will not have the last word. That the only response to violence is not more violence. That tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.” (David Lose)
Fr. Flor McCarthy, S.D.B. offers this:
Let us pray – Lord, you planted me on this earth.
You fenced me around with the love of family and friends.
Their care towered over me.
In the shelter of this tower I grew in safety and peace.
I put out early blossoms; I filled up with Leaves.
People had great hopes for me.
You had great hopes for me.
But now the year of my life is passing.
The harvest is approaching.
What fruit have I to show?
What if after all this care I had nothing to offer but sour grapes?
May you Lord have mercy on me,
and with your patient urging
help me to produce the fruits of Love.